Melmoth, the haunting new novel by Sarah Perry

Melmoth by Sarah Perry Picture: Serpent's Tail Books

Melmoth by Sarah Perry Picture: Serpent's Tail Books - Credit: Serpent's Tail Books

Norwich author's book a dazzling blend of the real and the imagined; simultaneously seductive, horrific and beautiful.

Is she watching? Following? Hiding in the shadows, her black dress darker than sin, her misery swirling towards you, ready to trap you, take you with her on her pitiless, punishing journey?

She lurks in legends around the world – wandering from tragedy to tragedy, bearing witness to the very worst that men and women can do. Now she is pacing on wrecked and bleeding feet through the pages of a seductive, compelling story by bestselling author Sarah Perry.

The new novel by the Norwich writer is haunted by a shadowy figure Sarah has summoned with a fabricated folklore reaching back in time through persecution, suffering and penance. As the story ranges from Manila to Prague, via East Anglia, Melmoth is watching.

The book, also called Melmoth, opens in a wintry Prague, the piercing cold and soaring architecture a backdrop to the gradual unravelling of a carefully-hidden past. English woman Helen Franklin is our guide to the city and alongside her we discover manuscripts, letters and testimonies, and a cast of characters concealing secrets, which fuse into an unsettling and irresistible read.

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Like Melmoth herself, Sarah Perry's novel seeks out some of the darkest events of human history. Often there is a focus on the small, unremarkable, everyday actions and inactions of ordinary people which lead to unthinkable horrors.

And always lonely Melmoth is watching and waiting, to offer the guilty a choice.

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The novel has already been called 'a beautiful, devastating, brilliant book' by Marion Keyes, and The Woman in Black author Susan Hill said: 'Sarah Perry is a wonderful writer, the real thing. Melmoth packs a punch of atmosphere, creepiness, fear and melancholy. I am going to move it off my bedside table because it is haunting my sleep.'

Sarah's first novel, After Me Comes The Flood, was set in a disorientating imaginary Norfolk, part Thetford Forest, part north coast saltmarshes, and won Book of the Year at the 2014 East Anglian Book Awards.

Her second novel, The Essex Serpent, was named overall Book of the Year Award at the British Book Awards last year, was Waterstones Book of the Year, and shortlisted for national and international prizes including and the Costa Book Award. Set in a shifting, tilting world where river meets sea and Victorian science and faith collide, the story began with a real, historic, earthquake.

'I was immediately struck by it because it seems such a very unlikely event to happen in Essex, which is not generally held to be a place of natural wonders and danger!' explained Sarah.

She was stunned, and thrilled, by the huge success of The Essex Serpent. 'I don't think any novelist can ever expect their book to take off like that,' said Sarah.

She grew up in Essex, in a home without television or pop music, her family members of the Strict and Particular Baptist Church. A childhood spent reading 19th century novels and listening to classical music inspired a love of the gothic – and helped incubate this gothic novel for the 21st century.

Her Melmoth emerged from a collision between the stories within stories of obscure 1820 novel, Melmoth the Wanderer, and modern world events. 'At about the time The Essex Serpent came out I became quite depressed about what was happening in the world,' said Sarah. 'The day before that book was launched there had been the massacre at the nightclub in Orlando, and there was a lot in the news about ISIS and the Syrian refugees crisis. It was very important to me to feel that writing fiction can have a moral and ethical purpose, so my Melmoth became 'The Witness'- someone who is cursed to always see humanity at their worst, and to understand temptation and guilt.'

Melmoth, by Sarah Perry, is published by Serpent's Tail, hardback £16.99.

The Book Hive is hosting a launch at the Octagon Chapel, Colegate, Norwich, with a reading, a Q&A, and book-signing, at 6.30pm on Thursday October 4. Tickets, £5, can be redeemed against copies of Melmoth (one per book.)

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